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  • Internal Migration in North Korea:Preparation for Governmental Disruption
  • Sandra Fahy (bio)

north korea, northeast asia, migration, humanitarian assistance, governmental disruption

[End Page 113]

executive summary

This article proposes that preparation for internal migration in North Korea, in the case of governmental disruption, will ameliorate humanitarian concerns inside the country while also providing disincentives for outward migration into neighboring countries.

main argument

Major governmental disruption in North Korea could produce internal migration, resulting in critical humanitarian needs for large portions of the population. Standard regional concerns focus on mass refugee flows. Efforts to stem the flow of outward migration by China and South Korea could increase humanitarian concerns inside the North, bottling up the population. Careful preparation must address the humanitarian needs of internal migrants so as to ameliorate suffering and discourage outward migration. Skillful humanitarian preparation and implementation—namely the creation of magnet hubs for humanitarian relief, the dissemination of information, and access to telecommunications—will ameliorate the needs of migrants while also incentivizing migrants to remain within the country.

policy implications

  • • The focus of the U.S., China, and South Korea on refugee flows from North Korea will not result in adequate or strategic preparedness for collapse scenarios.

  • • How South Korea identifies and addresses the needs of internally migrating populations in North Korea will have the double benefit of ameliorating humanitarian crises and reducing the likelihood of out-migration.

  • • Existing South Korean and European humanitarian relief operations within North Korea could be ear-marked for scaling up and expansion to create magnet hubs with access to material resources, information, and telecommunications in the case of governmental disruption.

  • • Proper humanitarian preparation for internal migration in North Korea by China, South Korea, and countries with geopolitical interests in the region, such as Japan and the U.S., will help avoid a buildup of humanitarian crises internally. [End Page 114]

When North Korea is represented in the international media, the image typically hinges on fixed but contrary notions: North Koreans are presented as brainwashed marching automatons, while their country is viewed as a large prison camp from which they long to escape.1 Both notions may be accurate, but the motivation of North Koreans for staying in or leaving their country is more complex than these images typically portray. Recent scholarship has challenged simplistic representations of North Koreans as desperate, brainwashed victims.2 Best-selling and mainstream writing, memoirs by North Koreans, and official reports by international bodies such as the Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 identify that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) does not guarantee basic human rights.3 Although this failure leads to defection, it also causes internal migration.

North Korea’s widespread human rights violations and its hobbled economy inspire many in the international community to speculate about the government’s eventual collapse. Part of this speculation considers refugee flows out of North Korea into the Republic of Korea (ROK), China, and Russia. It is impossible to guess the magnitude of outward or internal migration because it is highly scenario-specific, but links between internal and outward migration indicate the importance of identifying the needs of migrants early on. While existing research has identified the needs of out-migrating North Korean refugees, this article identifies humanitarian needs that could arise in the wake of internal migration and recommends strategies to prepare for these challenges.

Rather than arguing that the North Korean government will collapse, this article focuses on clarifying the needs of internal migrants if such an outcome [End Page 115] occurs. I agree with Stephan Haggard, however, that it is best to avoid “metaphors like ‘collapse’ and ‘implode’ ” because “their meaning is completely opaque.” Instead, I use the phrase governmental disruption to capture how organizational and institutional failure could be widespread enough that the state’s capacity to control, regulate, and provide for the population becomes defunct.4 The precise set of contingencies that would produce this situation is not under investigation in this article. Rather, preparation strategies are suggested to address critical needs arising for internally migrating populations.

The analysis begins by identifying factors that could lead to outward migration, followed by factors that would...


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pp. 113-141
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